The crazy world of “Covid-ucation”
With countries around the world encouraging their populace to stay home to fight Covid-19, teachers have been asked to learn how to teach their students online.
With only a few days or weeks to prepare, educators have found themselves in a high-stress environment, feeling the pressure to achieve the same educational outcomes, but through techniques and strategies they’ve never used before.
I have now completed my first week of online teaching and made a lot of mistakes in the process. Many things worked, some things didn't. I wanted to share my early thoughts with other educators so they can benefit from my experiences.
The aim of this post is to provide you with some quick-fire advice which will, hopefully, aid your own transition to remote teaching.
What this post is not about:
This post will not be recommending specific platforms for online or remote learning. Decisions about whether to use products like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom are made by individual schools and districts and are usually out of the hands of classroom teachers.
Therefore, while this post may use examples from specific platforms or products, the advice and tips are intended to be universal enough to be effective regardless of what resources a teacher is asked to use.
1. Be realistic about what to expect from yourself
It is important to realise straight away that what you’re about to do is not ‘normal’. Decades of research and teaching practice has found that students learn best when face-to-face with a teacher. Unfortunately, that option is not possible for most of us at the moment. Therefore, if remote teaching feels deeply uncomfortable for you, there is a good reason for that.
Secondly, you will probably feel like a brand-new teacher all over again. As newly qualified educators, it took us hours to prepare teaching materials, and each lesson felt overwhelmingly exhausting because we agonised about the effectiveness of every minor decision we made. If you have been teaching for a while, you may have forgotten what those first years were like. However, be prepared to feel like that all over again.
Thirdly, because of the two statements above, you need to be patient and forgiving of yourself. You will make mistakes, and you may feel disoriented as you stumbled through each day. However, don’t judge yourself too harshly: remember that you’re doing your best under very difficult circumstances.
2. Cater for the lowest common denominator
Each student will have a very difference experience of learning at home, and that is due to the wide range of home environments our students are in. Therefore, we need to be aware of what can realistically be expected from each learner.
Not only does this mean that some students won't have reliable internet access or a computer at home, but it might also mean that some students will only be able to access your resources late at night, when you're not available to help them.
Consequently, when preparing for remote teaching, we need to always ask: “Will the student in my class with the least access to resources be able to complete this?”. Being able to answer this question in the affirmative will ensure that learning is equitable for everyone in your class.
That is not to say that you should not provide addition resources or activities for those students who are able to do more than the ‘bare minimum’, but make sure that you are forming judgements across your class based upon the success criteria of the students who are operating under the greatest limitations.
3. Don't pretend like you’re in a traditional classroom
One of the ‘rookie errors’ I made as I began my remote teaching journey, was to simply teach like I would in my regular classroom. I found out very quickly that this did not work very well.
Firstly, direct instruction never translates well to the screen. Even the most engaging teacher loses their impact when videoed and students quickly lose interest.
Secondly, common class activities, like open discussion, behaviour management, note-taking on the whiteboard, all break down very quickly under these conditions.
As a result, teachers can become deeply frustrated that their ‘tried and true’ strategies don’t work.
So, it is important that you quickly put ‘normal practice’ away for now and adopt a fresh perspective on how to move forward, with a willingness to try very different strategies, even if they're new to you.
4. Focus on easily accessible, digital solutions
This is the best things to think about early on. When I say ‘digital solutions’, I mean anything that is freely available online that most, if not all, students can access immediately.
These could be websites, YouTube videos, podcasts, or premade worksheets that you send to students.
The benefit of leveraging pre-existent resources like this is that it can minimise your planning time, and because it’s already online, allows students to access it immediately.
5. Lessons should be about quality not quantity
It is crucial to realise that students tend to learn new information at a slower pace when they’re in the home environment. The focused atmosphere of the classroom is very different from a student’s own house, which has a wider range of distractions that undermines sustained acquisition of new concepts and skills.
Therefore, aim to convey only a single idea or skill each lesson. Even if you feel like it will only take five minutes for them to master it, you will often find that it takes twice, or even three-times, as long to do so when achieved online.
As such, always provide a series of revision or practice activities to reinforce the new learning during the rest of the lesson time rather than seeking to introduce something else new.
6. Be realistic about student attention span
Most students today are comfortable with using digital devices, whether it be a phone, iPad or computer. Because of this, they tend to develop a ‘short attention span’ when looking a screens, jumping between multiple apps and programs within a short space of time.
Therefore, when you are talking to students through a screen upon which the can access a variety of other things at the same time, you need to realise that their sustained attention is going to be much shorter than in the classroom.
Therefore, it is imperative that you limit the amount of time that you’re 'just talking' to them. Once boredom kicks in, students will quickly jump away to the first available distraction. Another risk is that this boredom may motivate poor behaviour or disruption, even when online.
So, only monologue for a few minutes, and reserve it for only the most important information. A good rule of thumb is to limit extended talking time to one minute per year level of your students. For example, Grade 8 students should only hear a maximum of eight minutes of a teacher talking.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot provide direct instruction more than once in a given online lesson; it just means that you should aim to break up any teacher monologue with other activities. You can separate blocks for direct instruction with student-directed activities, as long as you don’t exceed the maximum duration each time.
7. Over-simplify instructions
Whenever you provide an activity for your students to complete, there are frequently going to be times when students will not be present during class time to hear verbal instructions.
Therefore, all instructions should be written down with the activity resource they relate to so that students can refer back to it, even if you’ve given the instructions verbally.
Also, your written instructions need to be painfully detailed so that there cannot be any confusion about what the student needs to do to complete the task.
If necessary, it may mean that your instructions are in a numbered, step-by-step format. Alternatively, you might have to provide fully-worked examples of completed steps so that students can visualise what is expected of them.
In the same way, try limit the number of different apps, website or resources students need to access for an individual activity, as this may compound any confusion.
Finally, ensure that students know why they are completing a set task. If they feel like they’re ‘just filling time’, they are more likely to leave work incomplete. Provide a short explanation of the relationship between an activity and an assessment task, or link their learning to overcoming a particular learning challenge in the subject.
8. Minimise homework, or eliminate it entirely
Another rookie error made when transitioning to online teaching is to assume that you still need to set homework. This is not always necessary.
Since all learning done by students is done in the home, they are already doing ‘homework’.
However, just as teachers are more tired than normal when teaching online, students tend to feel more tired and stressed when learning at home. Setting additional work to extend the time they’re expected to stay focused just feels like ‘busy work’ to students and you’re less likely to find that they’ll do it.
The best idea is to avoid homework entirely, unless it is an absolutely necessity, when teaching online.
9. Encourage student participation
One of the most common concerns from students about not attending school is the lack of interaction with their peers. Social interaction is just as important to students as their education.
Therefore, it is often a good idea to provide social interaction while they’re learning in your lessons.
You can set up collaborative activities in Google Classroom or OneNote, or even simple email chains for work completion between students can be effective.
Setting up small group activities is appreciated by students as they can feel connected, even when isolated. This can be particularly powerful for those students who don’t have a large friendship group and teacher-set group work can be valuable in making them feel a sense of connection.
10. Tracking work completion
It is important for students to know that you are keeping a track of the work you have set.
Set up a way to check that each of your students have completed activities. Either have them email you completed worksheets, or look at student work in OneNote or Google Classroom.
Then, have a central location to show the students that you have reviewed and ‘ticked’ completed work.
In my classroom, I have a table that lists each student in the class and columns for each lesson activity. In each cell beside a student I fill in a colour based upon what I reviewed when their submission deadline passed: green for completed, red for not started, and orange for started but not finished. The cells in the table also allow me to make a note of what particularly was missed by students when work was incomplete. I find that this table allows students to see how they are progressing in comparison to everyone else, and has acted as a motivator to keep my learners ‘on task’.
11. Variety in learning activities
When planning for online lessons, use a variety of activities to ensure that boredom doesn’t set in too quickly.
For example, set a research activity, where they need to look online for answers to set questions. Or, set them to watch a particular YouTube video and answer questions that you’ve pre-written. Alternatively, send them to a specific webpage to find information or examples to help them learn.
A wide variety of learning activities will keep students interested in learning.
12. Rethink assessment
It is crucial that you reconsider the kinds of assessment pieces you are asking students to complete at home. Similar to earlier points, overly complex tasks with multiple steps is a breeding ground for frustration and confusion for students with limited access to resources, or who feel like they have don't have access to the teacher for support. Many students will often just ‘give up’ rather than persevere when trying to do assessment at home.
Also, students will often turn to their parents for help and explanation in the physical absence of their teacher, so it is important that tasks are straightforward enough for parents to comprehend and explain.
Therefore, multi-stage research essays are often a poor choice for remote learning. Either break it up to just a research task (like a source investigation) or an essay-writing task with teacher-supplied stimulus material.
Alternatively, knowledge exams that can be automatically marked by Microsoft Forms or Google Forms could be an effective tool. You could consider having shorter exams more regularly with a collation of results, rather than a single, very long exam at the end of a unit of work.
There are also other alternatives for online assessment:
- A digital learning portfolio where students provide a range of evidence for what they’ve learned
- An open-book test based upon demonstrating skills rather than knowledge
- Contributing to a class blog or discussion forum where students are responsible for developing a single page on a specific topic
- Create an infographic or digital poster using PowerPoint or Sway to show evidence of learning
The twelve ideas written above are just a few of the things I have learned in a single week of remote teaching.
Remember that we’re all on a steep learning curve at the moment, and even if you feel that you can only try one or two things from the things I’ve mentioned, it means that you’re moving forward.
It might also be worthwhile seeking feedback from your students to see what they like or dislike about remote teaching.
Also, work closely with other teachers to share the burden. Collaborating on ideas, resources, as well as sharing successes and failures is a great way of learning as much as you can, as quickly as you can. A clever strategy is for each teacher to create a resource that everyone can use and, by doing this, a small group can create whole units of work quicker than if they were working individually.
Finally, remember that you are the expert on your students. You will find the best way to teach those under your care. Trust your instincts. Sometimes, just the fact that they get to be in your online class may be the highlight of a student’s day.